RIVAL HEADLINE: Fitz faces his first true test as the face of the franchise

Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick
Ryan vs Ryan – That’s Rob Ryan vs Ryan Fitzpatrick

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Fitz faces his first true test as the face of the franchise

On the road and in need of a win, this is where the Bills’ franchise quarterback has to be at his best

DALLAS — The Bills are 5-3 at the halfway point, tied for first place in the AFC East with the Pats and Jets. They’re in the thick of the playoff chase, with their destiny in their own hands. So how come it feels as if the whole thing is about to come tumbling down?

The first half of the year was one of the most consistently entertaining in years. But it’s been like watching your child ride a bicycle for the first time. You run alongside, proud and apprehensive, wondering how long it’ll be before they lose their balance and fall off.

Maybe it’s the injuries. If you had told me in August that Kyle Williams would have to shut it down at the halfway point, and that Shawne Merriman would be done even before that, I wouldn’t have given the Bills much of a chance.

There’s also the loss of kicker Rian Lindell, which is no small thing. If there’s one thing you could count on in the dark years, it was that Lindell and Brian Moorman would provide competence in the kicking game. Today will snap a streak of 136 straight games with both of them on the field.

Then there’s the lingering memory of last week’s Jets game, which dredged up a lot of essential questions. The offense seemed slow, overmatched and afraid to challenge Rex Ryan’s crew. The best thing you can say about the defense was they seemed almost adequate.

Early in the year, when the Bills were surging to the front of the AFC, they talked about a new culture of belief. This year, winning wasn’t a hope, but an expectation. They fed that belief with wins over the Raiders, Pats and Eagles.

Now that belief is being put to the test. If winning can breed confidence, losing can create doubt. That loss to the Jets might be a simple bump in the road. Look around the NFL. All teams have bad weeks in a league where no team is as bad or good as it seems. But a pounding of that magnitude is unsettling.

The Bills raised expectations with their surprising start. They’re no longer the plucky underdogs. Today, they begin a three-week road swing that should determine whether they’re legitimate playoff contenders, or an average team finding its natural level.

“No concern at all,” said Fred Jackson. “We don’t have to play all three at the same time. We have to take it one game at a time and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

It sounds good, but playing three straight road games is rarely a good thing in the NFL. Since 1990, there have been 110 three-game road trips. Only nine teams went 3-0. Thirty teams went 2-1, and 71 had losing records on the swing.

There’s no such thing as a must-win halfway through the season. The AFC is wide open. There are no great teams. The Colts and Chargers are shells of their former selves. The Steelers are erratic. The Patriots are looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak in nine years.

But a loss to an average Cowboys team would be a jolt to the Bills’ playoff hopes. It would be their third straight road defeat, their second loss in a row and third loss in four games. Nick Barnett’s playoff train would be in danger of careening off the rails.

This is where a franchise quarterback needs to play his very best. Ryan Fitzpatrick is now the highest-paid athlete in Buffalo sports history, a $10 million man. He earned the contract on the field. But with big money comes added responsibility, the need to play big in a crisis.

Fitz and the offense need to regain their early-season form if the Bills intend to make a playoff run. After scoring 133 points in the first four games, they have scored 89 in the last four. In those four games, Fitz has thrown for 890 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions.

The Jets game was his first at Ralph Wilson Stadium since signing that six-year, $59 contract extension. Some fans were quick to remind him.

“I had never heard anybody say anything in the stands to Fitz when he had a bad game or something,” said Stevie Johnson. “But once he got paid, all of a sudden you hear all this stuff. It’s not right, but that’s what comes when you get in this position. I heard people talking about ‘Why did you pay this guy?’ ”

Johnson is right. It comes with being a franchise QB. Ask the Cowboys’ Tony Romo, who makes $11 million a year and has won just one playoff game in his career. Romo has become a constant target of criticism among Dallas fans, who question his ability to make the big throws in the biggest moments.

Romo and Fitz have almost identical statistics through eight games. Fitzpatrick is rated at 92.3, Romo 92.2. Fitz has completed 65.4 percent, Romo 62.5. Fitz has 15 TDs and nine interceptions, Romo 13 and seven. On paper, the quarterback matchup looks even.

Still, there are times when a franchise quarterback has to go on the road and lift his team in difficult circumstances. This three-game stretch presents an early test of Fitz as a franchise guy.

“As the season goes on, me in particular, I’ve been a little more careless than I probably need to be,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s something that I’ll address and look at and move forward and try to eliminate. We obviously don’t like the losses that have come. I think we’ve still got a lot of confidence on offense.”

Fitzpatrick has played some remarkable football on the road. He led St. Louis to a road win in his NFL game. His first two games as a Bill were road wins in 2009. He has four touchdown passes in three of his last eight road games: At Baltimore and Cincinnati a year ago; and at Kansas City in the opener.

An offense has to keep evolving. Rex Ryan figured out a way to stop the spread last week and you can bet he passed the blueprint along to his twin brother, Rob, the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. But Gailey has confidence that Fitz will meet the elevated expectations and continue to play at a high level.

“Oh, I think he will,” Gailey said. “I don’t think there’s any question. He’s already done that this year, and he will continue to do that. If that was my biggest problem, I wouldn’t have any problems.”

Courtesy: Jerry Sullivan | The Buffalo News

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